By Heidi Li
COLUMBIA, Mo. — People from all over Columbia parked their cars outside Clover’s Natural Market on a Tuesday night. They walked into the market, where a speech on raw food and a plate full of Zucchini Pesto rollups awaited them.
The speaker was Jane Smith, 72, a health coach and the organizer of the Columbia Raw Food Meetup Group. She holds public talks at Clover’s* every two months, and people come here to learn about one thing: raw food.
Some in the audience were so inspired by Smith’s talk that they decided to join the group, which Smith started in 2008.
Smith said that she has been a vegetarian for almost 20 years and she has been on a raw food diet for more than seven years. Raw food diets are uncooked vegan diets, also called “living foods” diets. Starting from 1830s, the diet has attracted followers in the United States, including Smith.
Now every day, Smith puts kale, green apple, fresh ginger, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and water into her blender, and makes herself two 16 oz. green smoothies, one for breakfast and the other for later in the day. For lunch, she makes herself an avocado and tomato salad with dulse, a type of sea vegetable, hemp seeds and a little dressing on the top.
At the beginning of the transition from a vegetarian diet into a raw one, she felt a huge difference and a change of energy level, Smith said. However, as she has kept paying attention to what she eats, she realized that what she signed up for was more than just a diet.
“We sort of bumble along with some of these foods that really aren’t very good for us, thinking ‘This is how it is, and I’m fine thank you,’” Smith said. “But then when you do something else that eliminates lots of toxins and puts in more nutrients, and ‘Woo-Hoo! It’s a whole new day!’”
Growing up as a sister to five younger brothers and a daughter of an alcoholic mother, Smith said her childhood dream was to get married early, have a bunch of kids and be a better mother than hers. And so she did.
At the age of 20, she married a Navy officer, Robert Smith. In the first 20 years of their marriage, they moved constantly from place to place due to her husband’s assignments, but they adapted to the change every time. They now have six daughters, a son, 27 grandchildren, a great grandchild and another one coming this year.
Having seven children, Jane Smith said she has always been concerned about nutrition, so she always paid attention to the latest health news. In the early 1990s, informed of the down side of eating meat like beef and pork, she gradually moved to eating only chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs and plant-based foods.
In 1994, when Jane Smith was working as a chaplain in Alegent Health System in Omaha, she heard a talk from Dean Ornish, an expert on vegetarianism. Ornish’s speech convinced her of the merit of being a vegetarian, so she cut down her diet further to include only vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Along with a healthy diet, Smith is also a big fan of exercise. She has been swimming for many years, she rides bicycles with her husband, she does yoga with her daughters, and sometimes she also lifts weights.
“My wife is a health nut,” Robert Smith said.
While the health benefit of a vegetarian diet becomes more and more plausible for many Americans, the benefit of a raw food diet is still undecided. About 3.2 percent of U.S. adults tend to eat mostly vegetables and little meat according to a study by the Vegetarian Times, while only 0.5 percent of those have identified themselves as vegans.
The raw food diet is a relatively new subject in the academic field, and the limited research on the health effect of the diet is still skeptical of the diet’s health benefits.
As Suzzanne Havela Hobbs wrote in a literature review on raw food diets, studies have found a positive association between uncooked vegan diets and substantial weight loss. However, studies also showed possible negative effects such as decreasing vitamin B12 and increased risk of dental.
“In short term, people who are on raw food diets seem healthier than other people who eat a typical American diet, while we haven’t had any data on long term effects yet,” said Luigi Fontana, research professor of medicine at University of Washington at St. Louis.
Fontana and his colleagues have conducted studies on the health effect of the raw food diet on people’s bone health, and they have found the raw food diet increases the risk of people having bone fractures.
Fontana also said that the diet may be beneficial to people’s health for six months, while if they rely solely on raw food for five to six years, they may face greater health risks, such as nutritional deficiency.
Despite the doubts from researchers, many raw food practitioners emphasize the benefits of a raw food diet, including disease prevention and reversal. Many people found the symptoms of their diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and certain cancers disappeared after they started a raw food diet, as they no longer take in “toxins,” such as refined carbohydrates and fats according to the book Becoming Raw.
Antioxidants, other phytochemicals and a high alkaline level provided by raw vegetables and fruits can help prevent diseases, or slow them down, according to the book. Esme Stevens, a Dutch raw foodist also wrote on her website that cooking foods kills the enzymes in them that help with our digestion.
Jane Smith was introduced to raw food diet through her granddaughter Leah Coen seven years ago on Christmas. Coen, then a girl of 15, made a delicious salad with chunks of raw sweet potato with raisins and walnuts, and its dressing, which blended raw pine nuts with fresh lemon juice, was the kind any vegetarian would ”die for,” Smith said.
Two days later, after reading a book on raw food borrowed from her granddaughter, Smith decided to give it a try.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m just gonna try raw food for a day, and see if I would die from it.’ And I didn’t.” Smith said. “And so the next day I did it again, and I still didn’t die.”
After reasoning with herself for a bit, she told her husband of her decision to go on a raw food diet, and she plunged into a new world.
When she started, Jane Smith was still working as a chaplain at Fulton State Hospital. In 2010, she studied in a raw food chef program in Maine, and about a year later she retired and began thinking about her next move. As she decided she really wanted to teach more people about raw food, she realized she needed a broader base of knowledge. She then attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition online and got certified as a health coach.
“I kind of always had this idea (health coaching) in mind,” she said, as she has begun teaching about raw food even before she retired.
Jane Smith said that working with people in Columbia, and offering them health advice is the center of her work now.
Donna Catt is a supervisor at Missouri Department of Education and one of Jane Smith’s health coaching clients. “She let me experiment with what she was talking about, no pushing. She let me find what is best for me,” Catt said.
Catt is now working on her raw food diet, while she sometimes still craves meat. When she told this to Smith, the latter, instead of blaming her, said to her, “Why don’t you go home and get one (piece of steak)?”
“That’s what I like about Jane,” Catt said.
Catt started meeting Smith last September, two months before she had knee surgery. After the surgery,Catt’s knees swelled to the size of basketballs, which her surgeon said was normal. Catt disagreed.
“It was wrong. The healing process should not look like that.” Catt said, with tears in her eyes.
She then began drinking green smoothies, as Smith had suggested. After two weeks, the basketball-sized knees shrank, and she became more used to the drink, she said.
After six months of consultation with Smith and working on a diet with more raw foods, her other health problems, such as digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue and hypertension went away as well.
Catt didn’t settle for what she was told, neither did many of other raw foodists, some of whom were once told they could never walk again and yet eventually walked many miles after eating raw.
Though not suffering from any diseases herself, Smith remembered reasoning with herself when she decided to go on raw seven years ago.
“Don’t not do something just because it’s hard and weird,” she said to herself. “Because you’ve done hard and weird before, and you know it usually had a pretty good outcome.”
That hard and weird thing she’d done before was her decision to give birth to her last two children at home in 1976 and 1978, when home birth was not commonly accepted in the United States.
Inspired by some of her readings, Smith began thinking about home birth during her sixth pregnancy. After she made the decision, she met with the midwife, and called her friends. Then with all of her close friends and her elder daughters present, her sixth child Margaret was peacefully pushed out of her body at her home. And two years later, there came her youngest daughter Monica, also at home.
That spirit of taking challenges has never gone away, and now Smith is destined to spread it to more people in Columbia.
It was a Sunday, and the Columbia Raw Food group was having its monthly potluck at the Cambridge Place Clubhouse.
The food table was full of raw dishes: vegetable salad, dehydrated kale chips, fruit salads with blue berries and pineapples, dehydrated coconut bread, and chocolate puddings, strawberries and bananas.
Group members lined up to get their plates filled with raw food delicacies, and then they went back to their seats, eating and chatting.
Donna Kilpatrick, 65, one of the group member, said when she and her husband were still living in Lake Ozark, they would drive to Columbia to attend the potluck meeting every three months.
“It helps you meet like-minded people and it makes you feel good.” Kilpatrick said. She has been on raw food diet for five and a half years, and her symptoms of multiple sclerosis* have gradually gone away.
The group meeting ended after a raw feast and encouraging stories from the newcomers. And that night as usual, Smith went home and opened her computer to update her status on her Facebook.
There, on her “about” page, showed one of her favorite quotes from the movie Thelma and Louise: “You get what you settle for.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Clover’s Natural Market.
*CORRECTION: Donna Kilpatrick suffered from multiple sclerosis. An earlier version of this article misspelled the disease.